Nihilism, Nature, and the Collapse of the Cosmos

Article excerpt

We typically regard nihilism as a problem about human life. While Nietzsche and Heidegger are undoubtedly the thinkers most closely associated with nihilism, it has an important history (predominantly in Europe) before them and has led an interesting life (especially in American culture) after them. Nietzsche's proclamation, "God is dead!", has been taken as the historical and philosophical fountainhead of European nihilism. As with any idea, however, the history of nihilism is more complex, and over the last half-century a handful of scholars have set out to trace its elusive arc. (1) Though nihilism is a major theme in late modern philosophy from Hegel onward, it is only relatively recently that it has been treated as the subject of monographs and anthologies. Commentators have offered a number of accounts of the origins and nature of nihilism. Some see it as a purely historical and predominantly modern phenomenon, a consequence of the social, economic, ecological, political, and/or religious upheavals of modernity. Others think it stems from human nature itself, and should be seen as a perennial problem. Still others think that nihilism has ontological significance and issues from the nature of being itself. In this essay, I survey the most important of these narratives of nihilism to show how commonly the advent and spread of nihilism is linked, as it is by Nietzsche and Heidegger, with changing conceptions of (humanity's relation to) nature. At root, nihilism is a problem about humanity's relation to nature, about a crisis in human freedom and willing after the collapse of the cosmos, the erosion of a hierarchically ordered nature in which humans have a proper place. Two themes recur in the literature: first, the collapse of what is commonly called the "great chain of being" (2) or the cosmos generally; and second, the increased importance placed on human will and subjectivity and, correlatively, the significance of human history as opposed to nature.


Nihilism originated as a distinct philosophical concept in the 18th century. As Michael Gillespie reports, "the concept of nihilism first came into general usage as a description of the danger [German] idealism posed for the intellectual, spiritual, and political health of humanity. The first to use the term in print was apparently F. L. Goetzius in his De nonismo et nihilism in theologia (1733)." (3) Tracts portraying Kantian critical philosophy as a form of nihilism appeared near the end of the century, but it would fall to F.H. Jacobi to give the first explicit formulation of the concept. Convinced that idealism posed an existential threat to traditional Christian belief, Jacobi attacked both Kant and Fichte, the former in his essay, "Idealism and Nihilism," and the latter in a letter to Fichte in 1799. He branded Fichte's philosophy as nihilism by drawing a stark contrast between a steadfast faith in a God beyond human subjectivity and an insatiable reason that, as Otto Poeggeler puts it, "perceives only itself and "dissolves everything that is given into the nothingness of subjectivity." (4) Jacobi believed that idealism entailed a lopsided focus on human subjectivity that not only shut out the divine, but severed itself from any external reality whatsoever, including nature. If things-in-themselves cannot be cognized, and actuality itself is but a category of the understanding, then it seems to follow that things-in-themselves do not actually exist. Idealism shifts, to use Gilson's formulation, from the "exterior to the interior," but does not make the move from the "interior to the superior"; in fact, it does not "move" at all, since the exterior--nature--is regarded as a realm of mere appearances. For Jacobi, it is only through a decisive act of will, a recognition of the stark either/or before us and a resolute commitment to God, that humans can find their proper place. As Jacobi challenges Fichte: "God is and is outside of me, a living essence that subsists for itself, or I am God. …